Justice, Midrash, Rosh HaShanah

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2018: Separation and the Streams of Justice

I paced back and forth in the hotel lobby. It was 9 pm. Everywhere I walked there were snacks lying around half-eaten, and gathered near the various piles of snacks, in groups of two or three, were eighteen 10th graders furiously talking and typing up a storm. They had one hour left to finish their speeches. Would they make deadline? Rabbi Miller and I bounced from group to group, like anxious editors needing news copy on our desk pronto. Slowly the typing lightened and the late night giggling began. But one young man, Harry, remained staring at his laptop. Every time I walked by, he said, “I need more time. I want to get this just right.” I resigned myself to getting my exercise steps by walking to and from his corner over the next hour. 9:30. 9:45. 9:52. 9:58. Finally, at 10:00 pm he looked up with pride, and said, “This is it. This is what I want to say tomorrow.” I knew he realized how much his words would mean in the morning.

We were in Washington, D.C., a trip that has become an annual tradition for our Confirmation Class. The weekend is convened by the Reform Movement’s social justice arm, the Religious Action Center, and our primary purpose is to learn about values-based advocacy and the importance of speaking up about policy from a Jewish perspective. We know the consequences of having no voice.

In the two years that I’ve chaperoned our Temple Isaiah teens, I’ve been so inspired by the way they seek to understand social issues, argue respectfully in pursuit of truth, summon passion when speaking in offices on Capitol Hill, and engage deeply with the Jewish texts that frame each position taken by the Reform Movement. This program is called L’Taken, meaning “to repair,” and implies the phrase many of us are familiar with – tikkun olam, repairing the world. If such repair of our painfully broken world will ever come to pass, I have no doubt that it will be in part because of these remarkable teens.

And yet, for all of their passion, and for all of their effort, what will they have accomplished – if in a few years they don’t vote. Without a vote, our voices are muted, if not muzzled altogether. Voting is the essential tool of tikkun in our country, not the only tool but the critical one without which every other action we take is undermined.

Now, it is my assumption that everyone here who can vote plans to vote, but along with Reform synagogues across the country, we at Temple Isaiah have launched a Voter Engagement campaign aimed at becoming a 100% Voting Congregation. If we aren’t there yet, that’s okay – we’ll have a team ready to support anyone with the process of registering, creating a plan for election day, and learning more about the policies being decided in our state.

But today, on Rosh Hashanah, I want to focus not on the importance or mechanics of voting as an American citizen, but rather on a mythical and mussar framework for what voting can mean as members of the Jewish community.

The first layer of understanding voting as a tool of tikkun olam, is to understand the mythical brokenness of our olam, our world. This is a Jewish story of what has gone wrong.

Throughout the Rosh Hashanah morning service, we hear the call of the shofar, the quintessential sound of the new year. Immediately after the wail of the shofar fades away, we recite the words, Hayom Harat Olam. Our prayer book translates it, “Today the world is born anew” (Mishkan haNefesh: Rosh haShanah, p. 207).

On Rosh Hashanah, then, we look back to the origins of existence and we celebrate the creative capacity of our universe.

But the prayer continues: “This day, the whole of creation stands before You to be judged.” Something is wrong in paradise, it would seem. This prayer is like much of the High Holiday liturgy, in which we account for failures, and recommit to doing better in the coming year. The message again and again reminds us that we humans are so imperfect. And yet, this prayer mentions that the whole of creation stands before God to be judged, not just humans. Something is not just wrong in paradise, something is wrong with paradise itself. What can it possibly mean to judge creation?

Well, the first time we witness God judging creation happens in the very first chapter of Genesis. As God speaks light into existence, God sees that it is good. Throughout the creation story, God judges that every newly made thing is good, from the sun, moon, and stars to the dry land and the seas to the plants and animals. But curiously, the second day’s work does not mention that God saw it was good. Positive judgment is withheld.

A midrashic commentary explains what went down that day. “On the second day of creation, the Holy and Blessed One said: Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water…God said to the waters: separate yourselves into two halves; one half shall go up, and the other half shall go down…” (Midrash Konen, Otzar Midrashim, p. 254 (qtd. in Abraham J. Heschel, Heavenly Torah, p. 124)). 

So just in case you’re wondering what’s going on, in ancient times people had a different understanding of the water cycle, and thought that there was water below – meaning oceans and lakes and rivers – and water above, kept up there by a ceiling of sorts that would open up periodically and let rainwater down. So there are two sources of water, the lower in our realm and the upper in God’s realm.

The midrash tells us that “…the waters of the lower realm…cried bitterly, for now they would be residing in an impure region. The Holy and Blessed One…[managed to work out a compromise so that all of the waters would be happy,] but since there was separation on that day, “this was good” was not said” (Hadar Zekenim, Bereshit (qtd. in Abraham J. Heschel, Heavenly Torah, p. 124).

The act of separating becomes the original flaw in the world, the first instance of something that cannot be judged positively. The world is broken because of painful separation, and it will be healed when we reunite the mythical waters.

The key to reuniting the mythical waters is Torah, our sacred blueprint for building a perfected world. The rabbis ask, what can Torah be likened to? And they respond: Just as water descends drop by drop and becomes mighty streams, so too Torah: A person learns two laws today and two tomorrow until he becomes a gushing stream (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:19). In other words, learning happens slowly, but powerfully.

So too for our vision of tikkun olam. Every little piece of knowledge, every single action we take, is like a drop of water, hardly significant. But if we take one action today, another action tomorrow, one person one person one person one person…we can become a mighty stream. And that is what the prophet Amos meant when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). His vision of an irrepressible, ground-changing, awe-inspiring justice isn’t about an abstract concept. It is the natural result of every person doing their part. The Jewish tradition teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4).

Each person, each water droplet contributes to the flood of healing change. Each droplet separated from the waters splashes without an impact.

So here is our mythical framework. As partners with God in the work of creation, we strive to return the world to a place healed of separation, metaphorically reuniting the waters by combining the small droplets of our efforts until justice flows like a mighty stream.

Let’s shift to a mussar framework, what might be called tikkun atzmi, personal repair. What is it like to be the holy water droplet that you are? How do we experience brokenness, and how do we heal the spiritual separations within us so that we can participate in healing the world?

What I’ve heard again and again from friends, and family, and many of you in this room, is a particular brokenness around not knowing how to make a difference. Of feeling overwhelmed and alone, powerless and thus paralyzed, and then feeling guilty that we haven’t done more. With regard to voting, I’ve heard a no-win despair of feeling irrelevant because of being in the minority, and how can we overcome, or being in the majority, in which case what does our vote count. How do we repair ourselves so that we once again feel useful and helpful and capable and courageous?

Our experience of spiritual separation comes in three forms. One, a separation from a sense of meaning. Two, a separation from a sense of agency. And three, a sense of separation from each other. How do we overcome these three isolating experiences? We stand strong, we remember that we know what to do, and we affirm that we are not alone.

In the onslaught of what life throws at us, one very natural human response is to slip into survival mode. Changing the world seems like a fairytale. Making it to the end of day – now that’s a goal. There have been times when I’ve needed to limit my intake of news, and felt like I’ve needed to flee from my facebook feed and find solace in a good book. When I struggle to connect larger events to personal meaning, I turn inwards, away from society. But society does not go away, and I increasingly feel that nagging tug of responsibility. So what we need is to stand strong. That means having our feet planted firmly not in what is, but in what could be. We must stand strong in our values, in our hopes, in our Jewish myths. No matter how confusing or frightening the world, standing strong keeps us aware of our place in the story, no longer separated from what we believe in.

The second separation is from a sense of agency. It is so hard sometimes to see the impact of our actions. Even when we passionately believe in what we are doing, we may despair of it making a difference. Every strategy has its critics. And no one really has the answers. So let’s keep it simple: we know what to do. Just keep showing up.

Gretchen Rubin, an expert on habits, writes that “often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless; yet at the same time, the sum of those actions is very meaningful” (Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before, p. 181). Voting from this perspective can be a habit of hope and faith, even when we don’t see the larger context. I don’t need to remind you to vote. But just maybe, it’s worth all of us being reminded that a habit of voting does build up to something greater. What we do consistently over time, along with our friends, neighbors, and community, does matter. Don’t question the value of being a droplet; trust in the stream. Voting is the essential American habit for channeling our intentions into something meaningful and impactful. When you practice a habit of showing up, you begin to recognize that feeling like your actions don’t matter is always and only an illusion.

The third separation is that distance we sometimes feel from each other. And this is the most complicated. Because while the original brokenness came about by separation, that doesn’t mean being different is bad. But sometimes difference becomes an excuse to perpetuate painful isolation. When we vote, we will not all vote alike. The tradition tells us that we are all made in the image of God, but that unlike coins made in the image of a ruler, each one precisely like the other, every human turns out differently. We are not anonymous and indistinguishable droplets of water. We are uniquely flavored. So how do we honor our differences and join in common purpose? Once again, the teaching that one must not separate from the community (Pirkei Avot 2:4) reminds us that while we may disagree on many things, we must share a recognition of being part of the same project. We have to remember that we are not alone. We can find those with whom we have affinity, and act together to create change. And we have to remember that we are not alone – we will always need to make space for a wide range of opinions. We will heal the separation that keeps us from each other when we open up, heart-to-heart, holding vulnerable honesty with compassionate curiosity.

When the United States won independence and George Washington became the first president, the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to him:

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine…”

As Americans, we have a cherished right to influence the great governmental Machine towards a society that reflects the hopes of we, the people. As members of the Jewish community, we know that the droplets of our civic engagement will merge into mighty streams of justice, bringing this beautiful world a little bit closer to healing, wholeness, and holiness.